Brendan Cox: we need to build community cohesion
In an interview conducted before the recent terror attacks, Brendan Cox on his wife’s legacy, women in politics and building stronger communities
It is almost a year since Labour MP Jo Cox was gunned down by a neo-Nazi inflamed by Brexiteer bile just days before the European Union referendum.
Her death remains a warning that hate speech is more than just words but can have consequences – in this case, the loss of a wife, mother, daughter and a principled MP who stood tall against prejudice and division.
The self-proclaimed “massive feminist” worked throughout her career, both before and after her election, to address the imbalance in society that still pigeonholes women as carers and men as leaders.
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She tried to redress that balance in her own family, sharing childrearing duties with her husband, until the scales were brutally tipped in the other direction, leaving Brendan Cox as the sole carer of their children and the guardian of her legacy.
One year on, Brendan doesn’t want to focus on how she died – he wants everyone to live how she lived.
He has a very simple idea, a Great Get Together on 16-17 June, to encourage people to knock on their neighbours’ doors and invite them to a party, barbecue or for a cup of coffee and get to know them.
Large-scale events are being planned throughout the UK – including an event at Holyrood – in the hope of creating the biggest expression of national unity since the Diamond Jubilee.
“I wanted to do something that Jo would enjoy being part of,” Brendan told Holyrood.
“At this moment that the public narrative and public debate is all about how we hate each other because of how we voted in the [Brexit] referendum, the other [Scottish independence] referendum or the election.
“I don’t think that really represents who we are. I think people are crying out for opportunities to come together to celebrate the things that my wife was all about, what we have in common.”
In Jo’s perfect barbecue, women should be equally ready to gather the meat and tend the fire, while men should be prepared to get their Marigolds on for the washing up.
When Prime Minister Theresa May said she divides the housework with her husband on the basis of “boy jobs and girl jobs” – Brendan tweeted a picture of his wife with a chainsaw.
“If you ask people to close their eyes and think of a member of parliament, nine out of 10 people will think of a man because that is the societal norm,” he said.
“For Jo, she thought that parliament and politics would function best when it represented the country, and that the huge imbalance in political representation undermined our democracy and our laws.
“Prior to standing as an MP, she was in the middle of setting up a new organisation focusing on how women are impacted differently by public policies, because she felt that there wasn’t enough attention and awareness of that.
“I think what she also felt was there was a tendency amongst women, certainly amongst some of her peers, to hang back and not have the confidence to lean in.
“Often her friends would ask themselves, ‘Would I be an outstanding MP, do I have the experience and characteristics to do this job well?’
“Jo felt that there were an incredible number of mediocre male MPs so it was totally fine for there to be average female MPs, and that women should hold themselves to the same standards as men in putting themselves forward, whether it is for jobs in boardrooms or jobs in politics.
“She worked as part of the Labour Women’s Network and she was a big believer in all-women shortlists.
“It was also, for her, a very personal thing in relation to how we bring up our kids and make sure that they didn’t feel limited by their gender and that they could do whatever they want to with their lives.
“She was very passionate about it.”
The couple had tried to take an equal share of the childrearing duties but still found Jo initially took more time off from her career – a situation that most families find themselves in whether by choice, biology or policy.
Brendan said: “Jo took maternity leave after the birth of both of our kids, but when Jo went to work at the end of that I took three months off – which was nothing like what she took off – to look after them and then I worked part time after that.
“So even before Jo died, and particularly after she went to parliament, we had a balance where I was probably doing more of the childcare, but in the first three years, she did the vast majority of it.
“We were trying to find that balance in our own lives, but clearly because of history the structures of policy lean in a particular direction.
“It’s easier for women to take the time off. You’re more likely to get maternity pay if you’re a woman than paternity pay if you’re a man.
“She definitely worried about some of the institutional biases that made it hard for people to make up their individual lives about how they balance roles in their own family.”
He has urged Britain’s politicians to design new policies that better reflect modern society.
“It is partly about giving people a choice,” he said.
“There have already been some policy moves towards sharing maternity and paternity leave, for example, but we’re still a very long way off from it being as easy for a man to do that as a woman, depending on your employer.
“Apart from that, we also need to see people more proactively talking about their role as a dad.
“You’re seeing much more of this, certainly amongst my peer group, so I think that balance is beginning to shift, but it’s a long-term shift, it’s not going to change overnight, but I think there is a lot that we can learn from some of the societies that are starting to get a better balance.
“A lot of the Nordics, the Finnish and the Danes, have done a lot of interesting policies to incentivise people to share maternity and paternity leave better.”
There are concerns that the ‘Great British Brexit’ will cause our politicians to turn inward and be less influenced by international policies – particularly where those policies emphasise social wellbeing over economic growth.
It comes at a time when the great tide of extremism that reached its crest with the worst elements of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump appears to be receding, with the recent humbling of the right-wing Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France.
With UKIP all but neutralised in the forthcoming UK general election by the success of their own key policy – Brexit – all eyes will be on the German election in September where the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany is gaining ground following a series of local victories.
Brendan said: “I don’t think this general election will be the most divisive – but I might be entirely wrong.
“Opinion polls say it won’t be a very close race, to say the least, and I think all of the political interest from Theresa May and the Conservative Party is to take as much of the centre ground as possible.
“I think the more extreme narratives are more unlikely to get a look in, and I think that is a positive thing, but I worry more about what is going to happen in a five, ten to 15-year timeframe.
“I think the best way of responding to that is not predominantly through politics, it is about building stronger communities.”
Brendan believes social media, particularly Twitter, is a poisonous outlet for some of this hatred but not the root cause.
“It is very easy to hate in the abstract, but it’s very hard to hate people that you know,” he said.
“So one of the ideas behind the Great Get Together is just to start to try to build that community cohesion, to bring people together of difference who might not know each other to build more resilient communities.”
He added: “The rise of some of the extremist political parties across Europe, whether it is the rise of Front National in France, Alternative for Germany or obviously Trump in the US, you see them legitimising a language which has not traditionally been part of mainstream discourse.
“What that does is it makes people who held those views previously, but felt that they had to keep them quiet because of social pressure and what their peers would think, it makes them act out on those.
“I think that is the issue, and I think we need to take on and confront those purveyors of hate, whether it is extreme Islamists or white nationalists.
“What those groups have in common is a sense that people who are different can’t live together and it is our job to show that they can and they do.”
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